Beacons Are Watching You

Ah, the wonderful world of high-technology mechanics.  How things really work, is there a more engrossing and satisfying enterprise?  This time we are back to push notifications on your precious smartphone.  “As you approach the dairy aisle, you are sent a push notification in your phone:  ’10 percent off your favorite yogurt! Click here to redeem your coupon.’  You considered buying yogurt on your last trip to the store, but you decided against it.  How did your phone know?”  So begins an essay by Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, and host of the Tech Empire podcast.  Kwet continues:  The grocery store got your location data and paid a shadowy group of marketers to use that information to target you with ads.”  But how do they get such precise location data?  Cell phone towers or GPS can’t deliver.  It is a technology called Bluetooth beacons.  “Those beacons are small, unobtrusive electronic devices that are hidden throughout the grocery store; an app on your phone that communicates with them informed the company not only that you had entered the building, but that you had lingered for two minutes in front of the low-fat Chobanis”, whatever they are.  “Bluetooth beacons can track your location from a range of inches to about 50 meters [about 163 feet].”   The beacon signal is detected by the apps on the smartphone, which then use the phone’s OS to scan for nearby beacons.  If a beacon is detected, it notifies the app, even if the app is closed. Once the app recognizes the beacon, it sends data on the products you walked by or the departments you lingered in back to the company’s server.  “Foot traffic information can reveal personal details such as your income and exercise habits.  When paired with other information about you, companies can build a rich profile of who you are, where you are, and what you buy–all without your knowledge.”  And they are everywhere.  Kwet reports that they are in airports, malls, subways, buses, taxis, sporting arenas, gyms, hotels, hospitals, music festivals, cinemas, museums, and billboards.

It just gets more and more disturbing.  “In order to track you or trigger an action like a coupon or message to your phone, companies need you to install an app on your phone…but retailers want to make sure most of their customers are tracked–not just the ones that download their own particular app.  So a hidden industry of third-party location-marketing firms has proliferated…these companies take their beacon tracking code and bundle it into a toolkit developers can use.  The makers of many popular apps, such as those for news or weather updates, insert these toolkits into their apps.  They might be paid by the beacon companies or receive other benefits, like detailed reports on their users.  Location data companies collect additional data provided by apps.  A location company called Pulsate, for example, encourages app developers to pass them customer email addresses and names.” And the scope of this enterprise has reached astounding proportions.  A company called inMarket covers 38 percent of millennial moms and about one-quarter of all smartphones and tracks 50 million people each month.

And now we can talk about “mindset marketing”.  This science predicts when individuals are most receptive to ads, based on statistical probabilities calculated through millions of observations.  “Brands like Hellman’s, Heineken and Hillshire Farms have used these technologies to drive product campaigns.”

Kwet then goes into more detail about the mechanics of Bluetooth technology as it apples to tracking.  He reports that beacons are used with Google Ads services.  Google uses the beacons to send businesses’ visitors notifications that ask them to leave photos and reviews.  Investigators at a consumer advocacy company named Quartz found that Google Android can track you using Bluetooth even when you turn Bluetooth off in your phone.  Kwet points out at this juncture that although Apple has a less sinister reputation on customer surveillance than Google, Facebook et al, they were the ones that invented the Bluetooth system of commercial surveillance.

The issue of informed consent is then broached.  Companies claim that they are engaging in fair practices of informed consent in deploying this technology. But Kwet begs to differ.  “For informed consent using beacons, you have to first know that the beacons exist.  Then, you have to know which places use them, but venues and stores don’t put up signs or inform their customers.  You can download an app like Beacon Scanner and scan for beacons when you enter a store.  But even if you detect the beacons, you don’t know who is collecting the data.”  There is no transparency.    Kwet concludes with a takeaway:  “Most of our concerns about privacy are tied to the online world, and can feel theoretical at times.  But there is nothing theoretical about Bluetooth beacon technology that follows you into retail stores and tracks your movement down to the meter.”

WeChat and the Surveillance State

The beleaguered Western mind has been reduced to the flimsiest rationalizations for his or her way of life as a fully-fledged member of the technological society:  We are not China.  One says to oneself, it’s true they have what is called a surveillance state.  But the West has safeguards in place to prevent that kind of scenario from developing here, or at least prevent the worst excesses from taking root, says this beleaguered mind to itself.  Stephen McDonnell’s piece in the BBC dated 7 June 2019, “China Social Media:  WeChat and the Surveillance State” may give even the most sanguine Westerner pause.  Looking at the particulars of this article, it is very easy to see the up-to-now indistinct features of the coming revolution in social control, which of course has a worldwide scope, coming into focus.  For those of you that have not kept up these last centuries, I mean 7 years, WeChat is a combination of Facebook, Apple Pay, Twitter, Tinder and Google Maps all rolled into one, that is based in and serves the population of China, mainly.  The dutiful student of our civilization’s rapidly evolving technological characteristics may have even heard of the phenomenon of convergence to describe the integration of elements in the technological society.  WeChat has a billion users.  Of course it is an arm of the governmental apparatus.

McDonnell was trying to say something about the Tiananmen Massacre on WeChat, not exactly a prudent thing to do.  So he got locked out of WeChat.  So what, one might ask.  But in China, all things revolve around WeChat.  According to McDonnell:  “In China pretty much everyone has WeChat.  I don’t know a single person without it.  Developed by tech giant Tencent it is an incredible app.  It’s convenient.  It works.  It’s fun…[w]hen you meet somebody in a work context they don’t give you a name card any more, they share their WeChat; if you play for a football team training details are on WeChat; children’s school arrangements, WeChat; Tinder-style dates, WeChat; movie tickets, WeChat; news stream, WeChat; restaurant locations, WeChat; paying for everything from a bowl of noodles to clothes to a dining room table, WeChat.  People wouldn’t be able to speak to their friends or family without it. So the censors who can lock you out of WeChat hold real power over you.

McDonnell was temporarily locked out of WeChat for posting pictures of Tiananmen and answering a few questions posed by interested messagers.   To get back in, he had to follow a series of steps.  WeChat admin sent this message to him:  “Your login has been declined due to account exceptions. Try to log in again and proceed as instructed.” When McDonnell tried to log back in, he was greeted with this message: “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been temporarily blocked.”

As so McDonnell had to serve a one-day penalty of being banished from the promised land.  Lifting the ban required the following steps:  Admitting to spreading “malicious rumors”.  (click agree)  McDonnell clicked agree. Then a new message:  “Faceprint is required for security purposes.”  McDonnell:  “I was instructed to hold my phone up–to ‘face front camera straight on’–looking directly at the image of a human head.  Then told to ‘Read numbers aloud in Mandarin Chinese’.  My voice was captured by the App at the same time it scanned my face.  Afterwards a big green tick:  ‘Approved'”.

San Francisco has banned facial recognition technology.   But they haven’t banned Facebook.  Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook according to the WeChat model.  One by one, the dominoes fall.  It’s coming into focus now.  Can’t you see it?  This phenomenon has flourished in a society which places the collective over the individual, and has for centuries.  But who could convincingly argue that ours is not evolving in that direction?  And it won’t take centuries to get to where China is.

The Smartphone as a Pacifier and Its Consequences

Report on a paper read at CHI 2019, conference held in Glasgow, Scotland, May 4-9, 2019

Little baby needs her rubber nipple? OK, here you go, snookums.  One researcher actually had the nerve to maintain that it might be a positive thing for an adult human being to rely on a pacifier.   I call out such an individual by name:  Shiri Melumad, who published a paper called “The Distinct Psychology of Cell Phone Usage” in 2017.  It is listed in the bibliography of the paper I am now discussing.  While Sarah Diefenbach’s and Kim Borrmann’s paper is not uniformly critical of the use of the smartphone, it does identify some rather troubling aspects of its use.  “With its handiness and multifunctionality the smartphone has become the ‘consumer’s constant companion’ and is present across all domains of life:  work, relationships, and solitude…HCI [Human-Computer Interaction] research found positive correlations between intensity of smartphone use and personality traits such as the capacity for solitude, need to belong and proneness to boredom…Such findings suggest that smartphone usage may seem more or less attractive depending on one’s personality structure [italics mine–dw].  More specifically, the smartphone may fulfill psychological needs related to particular personality traits whereby the utilization of of the smartphone for need fulfillment could also be an unconscious process.”  Diefenbach and Borrman aver that smartphone use runs under the radar for most people.  It is a “pocket slot machine” where the variable rewards structure of the smartphone leads to addiction behaviors not unlike those found in the hard-core gamblers of Las Vegas.  But all this has been established by other researchers, most notably perhaps by Natasha Dow Schüll in her chilling exposé Addiction by Design of 2012, which I have discussed in these pages.  Diefenbach and Borrmann end this section of the paper by saying that “All these findings underline the pervasive effects of the smartphone in daily life and the immense relevance of related psychological functions.”

Then there is more detailed discussion of the drawbacks of cellphone use:  that it negatively impacts academic performance, that “the mere presence of the smartphone reduces cognitive capacity, especially for those with a higher dependence on the phone…[r]egarding interpersonal relationships, Przybylski and Weinstein showed that the mere presence of the smartphone in social situations reduced the perceived interpersonal closeness, connection, and quality of the face-to-face conversation.”  It’s just heartbreaking as Diefenbach and Borrmann continue. “Another set of studies hints at contradictions between attitude and smartphone behavior.  For example, a survey by Drago found that 85% agreed [with] the statement that present technology impairs interpersonal communication.  Nevertheless, 62% were observed using either smartphones, tablets or laptops during conversations.”  Diefenbach and Borrmann report that despite warnings about the smartphone’s impact on social situations, the overall smartphone usage time continued to rise. All these conclusions are backed with solid research. The reference pages for this article contain 111 citations.  At this point the authors arrive at the main subject of the study, which is the way people use their smartphones in what the authors call “alone time”: “In order to fill this gap, the present research focuses on the specific situation of smartphone usage in moments of solitude, its determinants, and consequences…]t]his study adds to the HCI literature by exploring the consequences of smartphone usage on self-reflection and self-insight.” Its conclusions on this vitally important topic are not reassuring. In the section titled “Personality factors contributing to negative emotions during alone time”, the phenomenon of variable perception of the attractiveness of smartphone usage is explored in depth.  The focus, then is on individual differences in the experience of solitude.  According to the authors, current research demonstrates a strong correlation between positive solitude and increased psychological well-being.  Not surprisingly, the authors found that those with a a lower capacity for the positive experience of solitude relied on their smartphones more than those who have a higher capacity.  Diefenbach and Borrmann continue by citing other important parameters which determine emotional-well-being or the lack thereof, the need to belong and proneness to boredom.  They cite the literature which indicates that “digitalization in general drives our desire for continuous stimulation and stops us from exploring complex thoughts and questions that might not lead to instant rewards.”  The authors refer to a disconnect between the difficult work of self-reflection and the ease with which results are obtained via the smartphone.  “This perspective highlights that the process of self-reflection can be frustrating, which could make the instant gratifications of a mobile device appear even more tempting.”  Study results confirmed that “the empirical data thus supported the assumption that personality traits leading to negative emotions in moments of alone time are positively associated with smartphone usage in moments of alone time and vice versa…the present study found that people with less capacity for solitude, higher need to belong, and higher proneness to boredom also report more frequent smartphone usage during alone time.” The study also found meaningful distinction between self-reflection and self-insight.  Self-reflection did occur to a higher degree than expected but self-insight remained elusive. “While our research did not reveal an association between self-reflection and smartphone usage in alone time, the expected negative association between smartphone usage in alone time and self-insight was significant. One possible interpretation is that those who engage in self-reflective processes while being on the phone get less out of it.  For example, the outcomes of self-reflection while being on the phone are potentially more superficial, because of interruptions like new messages that disturb thought streams or biased self-perceptions through social media.”

It’s hard to avoid making the inference that the empirical data demonstrates that smartphone use is further eroding the capacity for self-insight, an already scarce commodity.  Those with personality structures that have a high degree of the need to belong, low capacity for the positive experience of solitude, and high inclination toward the proneness to boredom are those with the highest smartphone usage.  This arguably militates against efficacious self-examination, and this vitally important category of human experience is thus denigrated.

The Attack That Broke the Net’s Safety Net

I comment here on the editorial with the selfsame title that appeared in The New York Times today.  But it is shot through with that modern, twenty-first century iteration of myopia; this editorial was written as it were from the inside.  The editorial board of The New York Times is too close to the problem.  As such, statements contained in this editorial such as “Big Tech is slowly making its products safer for society” can be conveyed as if there was some overarching truth to them.  Forgive me if I think such efforts are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Look at the bigger picture.  This bigger picture is alluded to in the editorial in such statements as “But the viral spread of the Christchurch shooting video shows the limits of the content moderation machine in the face of technologies that have been designed to be attention traps.”  I don’t see redesign of the attention traps on the horizon, do you?  “It must be a priority to redesign technology to respect the common good, instead of ignoring it.”  This is a mere platitude.  And then there is the perplexing downside to increased regulation:  “More moderation comes with heavy risks, of course. Decisions about the limits of free speech would shift to companies whose priorities are driven by shareholders.” The technological imperative cuts off all avenues of escape.  Either way, the repressive structures inherent in the technology and in the ideology which authorizes this technology will carry the day.

The true nature of the technological imperative is here underscored:  It follows its own logic and it is a logic of nihilism.  All movement within the great internet machine is dead movement. We are confronted here with the inherent nihilistc bias of the Scientific Spirit–which lacks the ability to determine value on the human scale.  For the pure knowledge drive, the underlying force propelling the scientific spirit is intrinsically unselective.  It does not distinguish between the great and the small and is as a result incapable of providing any unifying mastery.  The only criterion it recognizes is that of certainty, to which all other considerations–value for human life included–are irrelevant.

One is reminded at this juncture of Nietzsche’s famous opening to the Genealogy of Morals.  “We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason:  how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for?  There is a sound adage that runs:  ‘Where a man’s treasure lies, there lies his heart.’  Our treasure lies in the beehives of our knowledge.  We are perpetually on our way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind.  The only thing that lies close to our heart is the desire to bring something home to the hive.  As for the rest of life–so-called ‘experience’– who among us is serious enough for that?  Or has time enough? When it comes to such matters, our heart is simply not in it–we don’t even lend our ear.  Rather, as a man divinely abstracted and self-absorbed into whose ears the bell has just drummed the twelve strokes of noon will suddenly awake with a start and ask himself what hour has actually struck, we sometimes rub our ears after the event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, ‘What have we really experienced?’–or rather, ‘Who are we, really?’  And we recount the twelve tremulous strokes of our experience, our life, our being, but unfortunately count wrong.  The sad truth is that we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we don’t understand our own substance, we must mistake ourselves; the axiom, ‘Each man is farthest from himself’, will hold for us to all eternity. Of ourselves we are not ‘knowers’…”

Technology 101–Neil Postman

It’s easy to get confused about what’s happening all around us as technology advances so rapidly.  If one tries to read Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology, for example, one may not understand everything that is contained there, with its many conceptual twists and turns and heavy peppering of neologisms. But this is not the case with this presentation, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”.

Idea One is technology as Faustian bargain.  This is easy to grasp, but as Postman avers, it’s really quite surprising how many people treat the advanced technologies as unmixed blessings.  “What will a new technology do?” becomes counterposed to “What will a new technology undo?” Postman brings our attention to the cost-benefit analysis.

Then he moves to idea number two, which is that benefits brought about by the new technolgies are unequally distributed.  Who benefits?  In the case of the computer, the obvious recipients of benefits are the large corporations.  The PC revolution of the 1970s made it seem for a time that the private individual could share in this boon which up till that time seemed to be the sole province of large-scale industry.  The World at One’s Fingertips for Everyman and Everywoman.   But even in 1998, when Postman delivered this lecture, he realized the downsides:  “But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people?  To steel workers, vegetable store owners, automobile mechanics, musicians…[t]hese people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions.  The are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them.  They are more than ever reduced to numerical objects…[t]hese people are losers in the great computer revolution, the winners, which include among others computer companies, multinational corporations and the nation-state, will, of course, encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology.  That is the way of winners, and so in the beginning they told the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists.  Then they told them that computers will make it possible to vote at home, shop at home, get all the entertainment they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary.”

The third idea is perhaps Postman’s most interesting contribution.  Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea.  To a man with a computer, everything looks like information.  One is reminded of the old adage that information drives knowledge out of circulation.  And anyway, it’s all up in the cloud, why do I have to keep any of this stuff, trivial or profound, in my own brain?  “Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.”  In short, it encourages, nay, legislates, the kind of Weltanschauung which is appropriate to an authoritarian technocracy.  And this Weltanschauung is Positivism.  That which cannot be measured and observed and replicated experimentally does not count as knowledge, or even as valuable.  And what then of the inner person?

The fourth idea is that technological change is not additive, it is what Postman calls ecological.  It changes the basic fabric of the culture.  “In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have the old Europe plus the printing press.  You had a different Europe.”  Technological innovation pays no heed to its potential impact on the culture it is introduced into.  This idea is also found in technological skeptics such as Jacques Ellul.  Politics does not drive technology, culture does not drive technology, but the other way around.  It is a tsunami which orders whatever it can encompass to its specifications.  This includes the human heart, if it be docile enough to fail to find the will to preserve itself.  “Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century?  If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong.  The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey.  There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs.  Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests.”

We come to the fifth idea, that at a certain point in their penetration into the collective psyche, successful technologics become mythic.  As a myth, it becomes enmeshed into the basic order of things, from the point of view of the user.  Postman cites an example from his pedagogical experience.  He asked his students if they knew when the alphabet was invented.  The question “astonished them.  It was as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented.”  Postman died before the advent of the so-called smartphone.  But he anticipated the attitude people have about this technology.  Not so much that people can’t believe it was never there, but that it’s been there for some period of time which makes it seem like it has an enduring presence, as if it were around for a hundred years.  People seem to forget that it has only been 12 short years since the introduction of the smartphone into Western society.  “What I am saying is that our enthusiasm can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its benificence can be a false absolute.”  Witness the widespread disbelief in these last years at the revelations of Edward Snowden and the sudden dawning on the psyche of the somnambulist that “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend”, as even many principal players in the technological revolution, Tristan Harris and his confreres, began to warn of the excesses inherent in the smartphone and the internet.  But this state of affairs was apparent 80 years ago with the introduction of television, if not before.  I have written in this blog of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which was published in 1872, in which he warned of the rise of the potentially conscious machine.  One hundred and forty-seven years ago.

Then Postman sums up his short talk with a clarity that is apparent throughout his presentation.  First idea:  “The greater the technology, the greater the price.” Second idea:  “There are always winners and losers.”  Third idea: “There is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice.”  Fourth, “Technology is ecological, which means, it changes everything.”  And fifth, “Technology tends to become mythic, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”  He closes with that same idea that Herbert Marcuse expresses in his seminal essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”, written 57 years before Postman’s talk: “We have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity.”

The Persuasion Architecture of the Attention Economy

It’s a broad focus, but one which is necessary now.  Zucked by Roger McNamee.  Just came out.  This guy was with ol’ Zuck at the beginning.  One of those gradual disillusionment stories.  Let us eliminate from consideration the prospect that Zuckerberg was overtly malevolent in crafting and implementing his designs for his “platform”.  So, what was it?  In the review of the book by Tom Bissell to be found in the NYT today, there was a telling sentence in the comments section appended this morning:  Facebook “leaves the faceless mob in charge of your once independent thinking.”  But surely this explanation is not a comprehensive one.  How did the mind give up its control to the faceless mob?  This intertwines with the story of the rise of Rationalism in the 17th century.  Then, superstition reigned under the protective umbrella of the Catholic  Church.  To put forward the opinion that the earth moved around the sun, in the wrong company, could get you burned as a heretic.  So, everything had to be put to the test of rationality and logic to combat this madness.  This is individual rationality.  But in the 19th century individual rationality began to be replaced by technological rationality.  It was the dictates of the device–machines, automobiles, that reconfigured the relationship between the individual and his or her environment.  The dictates of the device took precedence over the dictates of individual conscience and logic.

Zuckerberg and his ilk, then, have managed to “soften up” the mind of everyman and everywoman through the relentless implementation of the Fogg Behavior Model and related techniques, with social consciousness at its heart.  Everyone wants to belong.  The costs of this belonging don’t seem to be given their proper weight by most people.    “Simply stating what options are more popular, or merely preselecting default choices, is often enough to influence decision…”  we call this Status-quo bias.  In this way social deviance is pushed into a disreputable corner.  There’s something wrong with you if you don’t identify with the masses, or so goes this grotesque reasoning.  Our democratic system authorizes this. And after all, one isn’t making anyone do anything they don’t want to do in the first place by implementing Fogg’s Persuasive Design methodology in our internet marketplace.   People need structure.  They need routine.  The flight from self demands it.  Nowadays the smartphone provides the template for our daily routines.  It orders our life in ways we couldn’t manage without it.  You have been trained, smartphone users.  Oh, there’s no real self anyway, so why put any faith in something that doesn’t exist?  The softening up.  Look at all those nice red dots popping up every 40 seconds, it feels so good, a mini-orgasmatron waiting to stimulate me every waking moment.  Wait till they find a way to electronically integrate this with the clitoris…the faceless mob has been in charge since time immemorial, and with the rise of democracy, it became the sovereign force in society.  Of course this force is wretched and stupid and can easily be manipulated by bad actors. We have found in the last years just how easily manipulable it is.

Technology and the Law of Unintended Consequences

I consider today an article that appeared in the New York Times on Jan 25.  One whole day ago.  It is by Cal Newport, “a computer scientist and author”.  He claims that “Steve Jobs would not approve” of the way we use the iPhone in 2019, contrasting the typical user of this moment in time with that of the user of 12 years ago.  This, after all, was the purple dawn of the smartphone in the West.  (I guess they had them in Korea and Japan a few years before that.)  This is not a coincidence, as it’s apparent to anyone who looks at the laws of social dynamics that such a device is a perfect fit for the thoroughly collectivist cultures in the Far East.

Newport claims that Jobs never saw what was coming.   Newport relates that in a speech Jobs gave introducing the iPhone, he characterized it as “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” Then Newport goes on to say that “he doesn’t dedicate any significant time to discussing the phone’s internet connectivity features until more than 30 minutes into the address.”  Oh, that proves it.  because he delayed speaking of the internet connectivity aspect of the iPhone until the metaphorical page 12 of Section One of the New York Times daily (“buried in the back pages”), that must mean that he had no idea that internet connectivity would be a significant aspect of the iPhone’s operation.  Could it not be instead that he wished to downplay this aspect of its performance?

But this is all from a man who could safely be said to occupy a place on the “Natürwissenschaft-Geisteswissenschaft spectrum” (my term) that favors the former and disfavors the latter.  For those unfamiliar with this concept, it refers to the age-old quarrel between the traditional spirit of science and that of poetry.   Wilhelm Dilthey recharacterized it in the 19th century as the quarrel between science and the humanities in general.  Geisteswissenschaft, humanities, Natürwissenschaft, hard science.  In undertaking a course of higher education, one typically chooses one path or the other.  It’s possible for one individual to take hard science courses and English literature courses, and many do.  But the predominant trajectory will involve one category or the other.  How many humanities courses did Mark Zuckerberg take?  Of course it all comes down to money.  Where is the money in majoring in English literature?  And then ask the question, how much money has B. J. Fogg made in the last 12 years?  (See the link to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab on this site for more information on B. J. Fogg and his Behavioral Model).

So Newport comes at the question from the perspective of Natürwissenschaft, certainly.  I argue that this creates a blind spot concerning the whole question of technology, masking off the wider implications of understanding the trajectory of the phenomenon in question.  Of course this also works in the other direction.  Critique must be unsparing as regards the whole Natürwissenschft-Geisteswissenschaft question.  But we are here concerned with the spectre of rampant technology.  Even Newport concedes that the average person is no longer the master of this technology but that the reverse has occurred.  It seems to me that the only effective antidiote would be to attempt to redress the balance which is so far in favor of Natürwissenschaft that the opposite tendency is all but ignored.

My overall reaction to this article by Mr. Newport is one of incredulity:  How could he not understand that the smartphone would develop in any other way than the way it did?  “Mr. Jobs seemed to understand the iPhone as something that would help us with a small number of activities–listening to music, placing calls, generating directions.  He didn’t seek to radically change the rhythm of users’ daily lives…[p]ractically speaking, to be a minimalist smartphone user means that you deploy this device for a small number of features that do things you value (and that the phone does particularly well), and then outside of these activities, put it away.”  The ludicrously unrealistic tenor of these remarks beggars belief.  Basic concepts in psychology illustrate that this is pie-in-the sky thinking about the basic tendencies of a psychic organism that is contantly being molded into less and less autonomous configurations.  We are speaking here ultimately about compliant efficiency as a religious phenomenon.  The dictates of the operation of the apparatus determines our morality.  We”should” repond to the push notification immedately because the device makes it possible by redefining reality.  The red dot on the incoming email means urgency.  One can ignore it.  One can turn it to greyscale.  But the dictates of the apparatus insist that it is otherwise.

Newport goes on the make pathetically weak recommendations to combat the smartphone’s march to ubiquity in the psyche of the captured user.  “[I]f your work doesn’t absolutely demand that that you be accessible by email when away from your desk, delete the Gmail app or disconnect the built-in email client from your office servers.  It’s occasionally convenient to check in when out and about, but this occasional convenience almost always comes at the cost of developing a compulsive urge to monitor your messages constantly (emphasis mine–dw)”.  Now, suddenly, Newport understands what psychic forces are in play here.  This phenomenon, call it FOMO or operant conditioning or whatever, which is far stronger than most people realized before 2007 in the minds of those who are most susceptible to it (which is 90% of the population it seems), necessitates one solution and one solution only, if the desired outcome is some moderate measure of autonomy in this increasingly mechanized social environment–ditching the smartphone entirely.